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Extracurricular activities for the fall fests
If you can't drink from the source, try these local wine bars

Imagine this for your summer vacation: You have lunch in the Tuscan vineyards with Allegra Antinori of the Antinori wine dynasty; then you sip fine Barolos in the cellars belonging to another wine family, the Gajas; and finally you indulge in a tasting of about 200 premier and grand crus from Burgundy's top domaines.

Such delights are now available through luxury wine travel services offered by Le Baccanti Tours, Cellar Tours, BeautifulPlaces, Abercrombie & Kent and Burgundy Bootcamp.

While major wine-growing regions around the world can be found in Australia, Chile, Argentina, Spain and South Africa, most oenophiles stock their cellars with French, Italian and California wines and favor these regions for a wine sojourn.

Italy, for one, has more grape varieties and regions than you can shake a vine at.

"There are over 400 varieties and it's always a discovery, even for me," says Filippo Bartolotta, director of Florence-based Le Baccanti.

Although Brunellos from Tuscany and Barolos from Piedmont top every wine enthusiast's list, a little known region of Lombardy in north central Italy is also gaining acclaim thanks to the popularity of the bubbly Franciacorta sipped by the fashionistas in Lake Como. Long regarded as an understated playground for the rich and privileged, the picturesque fishing village's status moved up several notches in 2002 when George Clooney purchased his 18th century Villa Oleandra there. In addition, its proximity to Milan and the wine regions of Piedmont and Veneto -- within a couple of hours' drive -- make Lake Como the ultimate wine country indulgence.

Bartolotta, who planned the Italian-themed wrap party for last year's "Last Chance Harvey" at London's National Gallery, assists Le Baccanti customers with selecting the perfect villa on Lake Como, advising on stocking a wine cellar and arranging tastings of Barolos in Alba or that lunch with Allegra Antinori in Tuscany.

Olive oil tastings and sampling artisanal cheeses and wines from small producers are the kind of epicurean experience customized by Madrid-based Cellar Tours. The company offers an online questionnaire to better understand clienta for a tailor-made concierge service -- from selecting the villa and appointing a personal chef to arranging wine education in the client's house. The service extends to truffle hunting and savoring home cooking in farmhouses.

"We suggest you give your private chef the afternoon off," quips managing director Genevieve McCarthy.

Sonoma-based BeautifulPlaces has built up a rich portfolio of spectacular properties in France, Italy, Mexico and California. Company founders Liza Graves and Patrick Smith discovered the availability of stately villas in Napa and Sonoma after the dot-com bust and began representing them.

Smith and Graves are discreet about their high-profile clientele but will reveal some unusual demands: One client sent his feng shui consultant and security staff ahead of his visit to a Napa villa -- though ultimately, only the bed was rearranged; a 60-year-old guest requested pole-dancing lessons for her bachelorette party; and a couple checking in for a two-month stay in a Tuscan-style villa in Napa requested that a vegetable garden be planted specially for their private chef.

To experience the French wine country in Provence, Loire Valley or Bordeaux, BeautifulPlaces has a range of properties from a 17-bedroom chateau in Aix-en-Provence to a four-bedroom farmhouse in Duras. Upward of 30 villas in California come in all styles as well: The spectacular five-bedroom Tuscan-style Villa Andrea in Sonoma overlooks the Jack London Ranch and the sprawling grounds of the art-filled Panorama Villa in Napa are ideal for helicopter landing.

The company's Wine Baron service offers trips to farmers' markets and artisan cheesemakers. Then there are private visits with Napa Valley's cult winemakers, as well as small producers like the rustic Tres Sabores winery, where vintner Julie Johnson hosts a lunch and tasting of her olive oil and wines under the olive tree.

Gourmet barging is yet another way to savor life in the slow lane and sip your way through French wine country. Abercrombie & Kent's luxurious boats sail down the Loire Valley and Burgundy's Yonne River, making stops for guests to explore a Gothic cathedral or shop at a local market. The ultra-luxe 18-passenger Le Phenicien incorporates cooking classes, while guests wishing to disembark can be whisked off in a helicopter or a private jet to take in a bird's eye view of Burgundy's patchwork of centuries-old vineyards along the Cote d'Or.

And to really get your head around Burgundy wines, there is the Burgundy Bootcamp founded by Burgundy-based Becky Wasserman. The doyenne of Burgundy wines has created master classes that are conducted by her family and noted international wine journalists.

"It's seeing Burgundy and its domaines, from top negociants and superstars like Bouchard to small gems of producers," says her son, Peter Wasserman.

OK, so you own a Cessna but are looking for a villa on a budget? Villa Toscana in California's Paso Robles wine country is just the answer -- and the private airfield is a mere two miles from the villa. The 3,500-square-foot Winemaker's Residence villa adjacent to the nine-room inn overlooks the sweeping vineyards of Martin & Weyrich Winery (owner of Villa Toscana). A limo from the airport, along with blending and bottling your own wine and cooking classes with the inn's chef Richard Graham are just part of the wine country's good life.
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